The Day a New Burma was Born

Protesters gather near Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon during the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

Protesters gather near Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon during the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

RANGOON — When he woke up early on a drizzling Monday morning in August 24 years ago, Sanny, then 21 years old, probably had no idea that the day would end in tragedy. He was in high spirits when he left home at 7:30 to attend a downtown demonstration. He wasn’t worried about a thing—just very excited.

It was August 8, 1988, or “8-8-88” as it’s widely known, when hundreds of thousands of Burmese from all walks of life joined a popular protest in the former capital Rangoon to topple the dictator Ne Win’s single party rule that had oppressed them for 26 years.

“Even today I have no regrets about joining the demonstration at that time. I was doing something I felt I had to do,” said the then third-year physics student at Rangoon University, who later received a long prison sentence for his participation.

Twenty-four years later, the day still stands as an important milestone in modern Burmese history—a day that marked the emergence of a full-fledged democracy movement that managed to topple Ne Win’s regime, only to see a new junta seize power and spend the ensuing decades relentlessly suppressing its leaders, including Burma’s newfound democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi.

It was a day of hope, bullets, blood and tears.

Whenever he thinks about that day, the first thing that comes to Sanny’s mind is the huge column of demonstrators shouting anti-Ne Win slogans and the people on both sides of the road who expressed their full support for the protesters.

“The road was packed with people as far as the eye could see. There were countless people lining the sides of the roads, giving us food, drinking water and cigarettes. They said ‘May your cause succeed,'” he recalled.

“It made me cry, and what I learned on that day was that people are always ready to be with you when you stand on their side. With that much popular support, I was convinced that we would easily win,” he added.

But the military crackdown on thousands of protesters at Rangoon City Hall that night proved he was wrong.

Pyone Cho, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, was among the demonstrators near the City Hall a few minutes before the army opened fire.  He was 22 years old at that time, doing his masters degree in geology at Rangoon University.

“Around 11 pm, someone informed us that we were surrounded. The army gave us three warnings to disperse. Then came a sudden blackout and the bullets started to fly in. I was lucky to narrowly escape,” he recounted.

Pandavunsa, 55, has a vivid memory of how bloody the crackdown was.

“When they began shooting, I was in total shock. Then two guys near me fell down. So I grabbed them and started to run for my life,” remembered the Buddhist monk, who took part in the protest as a member of the Rangoon Young Monk’s Organization and was later a leading figure in the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007.

“A few minutes later I stopped to find out that the head of the man I carried away was open. His brains were like smashed tofu. The other one, a monk, had been shot in the stomach. I could see his intestines. He was already dead, too,” he said.

The next morning, an eerie silence descended on the whole of Rangoon and there was no trace of the previous night’s mass killing in front of the City Hall. The number of casualties still remains unknown.

Dr Tin Myo Win, the family doctor of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was a surgeon at that time at Rangoon General Hospital, where he treated many wounded protesters.

Although he also has vivid memories of that day and its aftermath, he said he is reluctant to recount them, lest he reignite public resentment over the crackdown and cause any obstacle to the national reconciliation process that Suu Kyi is now working on. He acknowledges, however, that the 8-8-88 uprising has had an indelible impact on the country.

“Nobody can deny that it brought out leaders and players for today’s Burmese politics. The uprising opened our eyes to the need for national reconciliation and unity, which are the essential forces to complete our mission that originated 24 years ago,” he said.

Pyone Cho said the 88 movement was the mother of all subsequent uprisings, all of which have had only one strong message that still echoes today: People want democratic changes.

“After our repeated demands for change, the government is now doing some reforms. But I have to say, there’s a long road to the change we want. Take the Constitution, for example. If we all take part in the reform process, as we did in 1988, we will win,” said the 46-year-old ex-political prisoner who has spent nearly 20 years behind bars.

For Pandavunsa, Burmese democracy begins with the 88 movement.

“It was the very first time we Burmese collectively fought against the dictatorship. It was the first time we talked about democracy. Anyone in their right mind knows today’s changes are the long awaited results of the 88 uprising,” the monk commented.

Tin Myo Win said it was the “88 spirit”—working for the people’s interests and having comradeship among protesters—that toppled single party rule 24 years ago.

“If we were able to work together even at that time when the doors to change were closed, why can’t we reapply that spirit now, when changes are visible and our goal is in sight?” he said, adding that “the goal is a long way to go.”

Meanwhile, the 24th anniversary of the 8-8-88 uprising has revived Pandavunsa’s memories of that fateful day.

“I still remember the faces of people on that night. Even in their death, I felt hope for change was written on their faces,” said the monk.

“We have sacrificed a lot. I saw comrades die young. I pray for no repetition of that day.”

19 Responses to The Day a New Burma was Born

  1. 8888 ( Four Eight ) was the modern history of Burma change towards the democracy which we have to go very long way to achieve. present semi-military government is doing some thing on the reforms at the same time killing its own peoples at western part of the country call Araakan ( also call Rakhine State ). Do not think that the Muslims of Arakan are bad peoples, they have paid their lives during 8888 up rising also in Rangoon also in Akyab ( also call Sitwe ) and variouun talkrecently ” to fight dictatorship call him, do not call him to fight with Muslim Rohingya .”
    As a matter of fact we all are human beings, why should we create enemy each other as these peoples are staying since the centuries in this land of Arakan. No doubt that British colonial power brought them here as you peoples are stated, but it is already 188 years passed. According to international standard to make citizenship, they are well qualified. Why you have to recognize 1982 citizenship law which was promulgated by one party dictatorship. Please think carfeully who all are faithfull to the country and who all are invited british to occupy Arakan and Burma. The history will provide the result of modern Burma soon.

  2. please read the sentence as follow in my above comment.

    ” also call Sitwe and other parts of the country. Recently one of the 8888 generation leader Moe Thi Zun said that do not call him to fight Rohingya, call him to fight and take out the root of dictatorship from the soil of Burma.”

  3. The 88 Generation is still a force to be reckoned with. The junta has shown it is easy to squash a political party, but not an entire generation. At the end of the day good will prevail. Even if it needs a revolution for the people to win their freedom back.

  4. May be only two of us think in that way. Don’t mind that. One drop of water in the sea can make different.

  5. I still think that 8888 uprising was a myth.
    It did nothing except made people die and imprisoned.
    The truth is that it was a disaster for Myanmar.
    Let’s face it.
    U Ne Win’s government knew that the road to socialism wasn’t getting anywhere.
    They wanted an excuse to change things around.
    The 8888 uprising created that opportunity.
    Don’t get fooled. The Thatmadaw knew what it was doing even back then.
    Let’s look at things in the right light.
    We weren’t prepared for what was going to take place.
    Only the Thatmadaw knew the exact nature of the situation.
    There are a lot of lies and untruths about this matter.
    However this is irrelevant.
    What is important now is to grasp this golden opportunity for progress.
    Come on things are going in the right direction.
    Don’t waste time speculating about the past.
    Lets all get behind the government.
    All for one and one for all.

    • Tatmadaw was not the only people who knew. We all knew what was going on. Your comment makes no sense.

    • Someone who said 8888 was a myth must be either naive or a person who was one of the thugs in green garb then. Amazing how some people stoop so low to spout such an insult to the many compatriots who were gunned down on the streets by their own army! Everyone with the right mind knows the 8888 event is not some speculated and made-up story.

      Indeed, your Tatmadaw knew so well of the exact nature of the situation so much that for the ensuing decades, the whole of Burma went downhill and its people more impoverished and uneducated than some African countries while the Generals and their cronies all have become billionaires! Indeed, your beloved Tatmadaw saved the country so well that Burma was, and even still is, among the lowest in every development ranking in the world. What a well-done job, huh! Look at the so-called “saviour” government even today. Your beloved Tatmadaw just trade in the uniform with fanciful dress and still can’t dare to declare how rich they really are lest they be exposed to the public confirmation of their plundering of the public treasury. Meanwhile, Tatmadaw has a very nice name for all their actions, i.e. protecting the state! Very appropriate indeed, Win Naing. All for one and all for one again.

  6. The murderers are still roaming free.

  7. George Than Setkyar Heine

    and now the fence jumping so-dubbed rohingyas are pushing burma down into the abyss of global islamization as well no doubt.
    ioc and other islamic states are yelling for blood of the people of burma for the crimes initiated, carried out and committed by the illegal immigrants from bangladesh today.
    crafted, fabricated and manufactured evidences in the form of photos and others by the extremists have gained ground in favor of the lawlessness of the rohingyas running amok – raping, burning and killing – in arakan state of burma.
    and the native arakans/rakhines are living in anxiety and jeopardy for their lives and posterity of course today.
    threatening national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of burma would hold no water for that matter lest the rohingyas and their brethren islamic extremists forget i say.
    and as one good turn deserves another the same is true for a bad one as well, they say!

  8. Concerning Oo Maung Gyi’s comments, I would like to suggest something. In my research field work north of Sittway, I found village with numerous Muslims. Again, near the airfield, I met a muslim family. We talked there for a while, and that old muslim guy told that there were many people north of Sittway and their language was much differ from him. He was a native, as you described, the people who lived there for centuries. However, it is undeniable that there are many people just entered Myanmar in last 5 or 6 decades. Nowadays, because of these illegal immigrants, native muslims in Rakhine met problem. I believe that who loves our nation, and sacrificed during democratic movement are native muslims, not the invaders. So, the criticism should be carefully accomplished.

  9. A Burmese Freedom Fighter

    The power of the positive attitude is the only antidote known to heal all the wounds received or to be received during our unfinished journey to Democracy in Burma. You have been doing a very good job in our search for the right to life, liberty, freedom and pursuit of happiness.

    It is so remarkable to see the people of Burma and 88 generation’s fearlessness in defiance of all the unfairness set up on the Burmese people by dictatorship, Physical and mental endurance throughout the last 24 years of struggle for the justice, dedication to the Democracy movement and commitment to democratization in Burma.

    I am so proud of each and everyone of you to be able to bring all these positive changes taking place in Burma. Keep up your good work and we all are with you in our hearts to move Burma forward all the way throughout the journey to Democracy in Burma.

    A Burmese Freedom Fighter

  10. Yes,this day was born out of fire,brimstone and bullets.Yes,thia day of quadruple eights was born under the rainstorm drenched with redblood and tears from all walk of life.The ebbing tide of the braves fearlessly rolled forward to meet roaring tanks and exploding furies of guns,not letting their flags fall nor picture of their dear Bogyoke touch the dirts.A date not less historic than the Fall of Basles nor October Revolution of by-gone days.Remember the blood spilled and tears shed were not in vain.What we are seeing today would not have imagined let alone happened without our fallen braves’ lives and relentless persistent and relentless fight of those who survived the hell-fires in prison tortures all kinds of degradations and sacrifices.We owe to all of these braves and entire resistantant fighters,active or passive,a debt of gratitude.A befitting honor shall be to officially recognize this day as ” National Democracy Day.”

  11. If 8.8.88 was the day Burma was born, it was more like a still-birth (or DOA, dead on arrival as they say).
    In 1988, the Chinese had less control of a country now called “Myanmar” (Miandian in Chinese!) and there were no “peace negotiations” with the ethnic armies (UWSA, for example was a remnant of the BCP, before it became a PLA proxy). There were no “frienemies” (that’s how I see cease-fires with “armed militia groups”. Reality has changed dramatically since 1988. Quo vadis Burma?

  12. It all started when Phone Maw was shot and died.
    That was the trigger.
    We never started 8888 with the demand of democracy in mind.
    All we asked was justice for Ko Phone Maw.
    RIP brother.

  13. About the 8888 uprising everybody is entitled to his own opinion because all of us had different experience when it took place.
    However things cannot be reversed and what happened cannot be changed.
    I am sure you would want a fairer and brighter future.
    This is the situation we’ve got.
    The Thatmadaw and DASSK.
    They are the ones who have a good chance of turning things around.
    This is our fate.
    Let’s have goodwill and give peace and prosperity a chance.

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